Fear Itself

I’m not a statistician, but for the next few minutes I’m willing to play one on the internet — long enough to discuss our not entirely realistic fears. On a recent day on a Carolina beach, hundreds of people rode bikes on the sand, strolled picking up shells, sunned in beach chairs, read under umbrellas, played beach games. A few kids ventured into the surf up to their ankles.

But for miles in either direction no frolickers leaped in the waves, no swimmers or surfers paddled 20 or 30 yards off shore. Only a single head bobbed a few yards beyond the waves. I know because that was me. What accounted for my splendid isolation?

Fear of Jaws, after a rash of shark attacks on the East Coast. It persuaded a huge number of vacationers to spend their beach vacation on the beach, but not in the water for fear a primeval sea creature would dismember them in mid-paddle.

It happens, of course. The worst recorded year in history was 2010 with 79 attacks worldwide. This year might beat that record, but America averages a number you can count on your fingers and toes, if the shark has left you with all twenty. Half of the attacks involve surfers who are often out in deeper water. Let’s face it, 79 out of millions of swimmers worldwide isn’t exactly a gigantic risk.

National Geographic provides the news that you have a one in 63 chance of dying of the flu in your lifetime, but only a one in 3,7000,000 chance of being killed by a shark. You are a lot more likely to be killed by a drunk driver on the way to the beach, since there are 33,000 auto fatalities a year vs. 15 or less shark deaths.

Furthermore, some of the attacks this year apparently took place near a pier where fishermen were discarding the remains of cleaned fish and bait. The lesson is not “never swim again,” but “if there’s blood in the water, get out of the water.” Anyone swimming nearby could be mistaken for a shark hors d’oeuvres. So swim with your chums, but not other people’s chum.

On a more somber topic, after the admittedly horrific events of 9/11 fear of terrorism began to haunt American consciousness. It pervades real-life and fictional life in all media. Clearly identifying the perpetrators of that enormity and bringing them to justice made sense as does making it hard for terrorists to do their worst.

But the reaction was extreme in some cases and laughably inadequate in others. Invading a Middle Eastern country unconnected to 9/11 had the perverse effect of creating a rich environment for terrorist groups to thrive, gave them a casus belli and transported tens of thousands of American targets within range of their weapons.

Clearly weapons shouldn’t get onto airplanes and cockpit doors need to be impenetrable, but hassling grandma over four ounces of lotion is stupid. Improving the sharing of intelligence between various parts of the government can only help, but spying on Angela Merkel and Senate staff undercuts the legitimacy of the spooks. And when drone warfare hits civilian weddings rather than terrorist targets, it is easy for our enemies to paint us as the terrorists.

The fears of the American people were fanned by cynical or paranoid politicians like Dick Cheney and opportunistic purveyors of entertainment who brought us an endless supply of Jack Bauer nightmares. In fact, terrorism is far from at the top of the list of threats to the life and limb of Americans within the country’s borders.

Several million Americans die every year, but most of them from heart disease (600,000), cancer (576,000), accidents (126,000), Alzheimer’s (85,000), diabetes (74,000), influenza and pneumonia (53,000) suicide (40,000). If you want to worry about something, starting there would be a good idea.

Or if it’s man’s inhumanity to man that keeps you awake at night, terrorism is still far down the list in a country with 15,000 murders a year, 108,000 rapes, and 224,000 aggravated assaults.

From the Unabomber in the 1980s through 2013‘s Boston Marathon bombing, about 3,200 deaths in America have been attributable to terrorism, and 2,977 of those were on 9/11. The war in response to 9/11 has cost four times that number, 6,800 American uniformed personnel and 6,700 American contractors.

Despite the relative rarity of deaths by terrorism on American soil, we are regularly warned by politicians and news media to be afraid, be very afraid. They are coming to get us. We are bombarded with saturation coverage of ISIS and Yemen, while 5,800 annual hate crimes get barely a headline, though they include 2,500 assaults based on race, religion and sexual orientation.

So, in the week after the Charleston shooting of nine black Americans by a hate-filled white American, six African-American churches went up in flames, three of which have been adjudged arson — in Charlotte, NC, Macon, GA and Knoxville, TN. The nation hardly noticed. The FBI declined to call these hate crimes.

Is it not just conceivably possible that our worries about sharks and ISIS, for example, are overblown while we fail to perceive many of the actual dangers that surround us? Yes. To paraphrase Will Rogers, it ain’t what we fear that’s going to kill us, but what we don’t even realize we ought to fear.

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